People tend to over romanticise traditional Ladakh. However, before modern medicines became commonly available, injuries and ailments could take painfully long to heal or even prove to be unnecessarily fatal. With barely adequate production capabilities, local communities would be severely challenged during the years of drought and other natural disasters.
Still, the people were self-sufficient most of the time. Hectic work during the short summer agricultural season was followed by a long period of a relatively relaxed winter, typically providing scope for heightened family and community interactions. Their livelihood based on agriculture, livestock rearing and trade was in a state of harmony with their environment. There was no wastage and nothing was discarded that was not biodegradable. They had achieved a sustainable mode of life many centuries before that term gained a sense of urgency in modern environmental discourse.
In more recent times, however, trucks are arriving from the Indian plains bringing in food grains that are made available to the local population at subsidised rates. There is also a large influx of tourists and defence personnel. These changes have led to the chaotic unplanned urban construction in the major settlements at a rapid pace, to cater to the summer rush.
The new economic opportunities now locally available are taking the Ladhakis away from their former hard working, self-sufficient, cheerful and contended lives. It also creates an unsustainable stress on the local physical environment. To secure the future of Ladakh, informed choices would have to be made by the Ladhakis, rather than an unthinking wholesale adoption of the model of development through rapid urbanization that they are currently engaged in.
At the core of the Ladhaki way of life was the community. Discourse with the external agencies and influences, whether in the economic, political or the religious domain, was invariably at the level of the local community rather than the individual. Reaching out to the immediate neighbours for organizing family functions, construction of their houses and the management of the elaborate irrigation channels in a spirit of cooperation were the norms. Potential individual conflicts within the community were contained and resolved through the intervention of the community. Individual good was traditionally accepted to be subservient to the good of the community.
Recent changes are, however, creating ruptures in the fabric of the hitherto harmonious social structure. Young men are increasingly moving to the urban hubs of tourist inflow drawn by the emerging economic opportunities there leaving behind the women folk and their children to take care of the fields and the livestock on their own. The end result is a disrupted family.
In contact with the ‘outsiders’ in these urban environments the men are exposed to a monetized economy wherein the value of everything is measured by its price. They experience a consumerist culture that measures happiness by the quantum of expense incurred. The new culture celebrates individualism as opposed to their traditional collective aspirations.
A large dose of self-confidence in their own long held value systems and the local ethos of cooperation would be required by the Ladhakis to adequately deal with such alien influences and avoid being swept off their feet. The time tested cooperative behavior is, perhaps, essential for ensuring a joyous survival in a harsh landscape.
Anthropocentric or the human-centric worldview, taken for granted today, is a relatively new development in the history of human culture. The forces of nature overawed most ancient cultures. Traditional Ladakh too had a deep respect, tinged with an element of fear, for the ferocity of nature that is reflected in their ancient belief system – a belief in the spirits of the mountains, passes, lakes, sky and the earth.
Those spirits were considered to be potentially malevolent and, therefore, requiring appeasement usually through the medium of the shaman who could communicate with the diabolical spirits. The shaman was also the medicine man and an oracle. Animism, or the worship of nature, is fundamentally opposed to monotheism. There were simply too many natural forces to deal with, independent of each other.
Buddhism was subsequently adopted by the Ladhakis not at the cost of, but in addition to, their traditional animist worldview. In the Ladhaki mindset, fear of nature got easily morphed into a compassion for all living beings under the influence of Buddhism. Gautam Buddha got elevated to the status of a God with gigantic statues commissioned in his honour.
However, the pantheistic traditional beliefs were not satisfied with Buddha as the sole deity and the numerous Bodhisattvas, or the long line of deities, who had attained Enlightenment but chose to stay on in the world to help others achieve salvation, came into being. Such a composite value system has been the common heritage of the entire region of Tibet and survives today, in a largely unchanged form, in Ladakh.
The Purig region of Ladakh comprising of the Kargil district today, was a part of the general Ladhaki Buddhist culture till the conversion of the majority of its inhabitants to the Shia sect of Islam in the fifteenth century. Polo, a popular sport in Central Asia, was introduced into Ladakh through Kargil but the orthodox Muslims now frown upon its practice.
Shared environmental challenges require similar responses and the Ladhaki Muslims today are torn between the allegiance to the locally evolved traditional culture and the modern Muslim orthodoxies whose agenda is set by far off and culturally alien religious centres.